The mist rising from the river was thick and cold, seeping through the thin cloth of his tunic and raising goose bumps along the skin of his arms. Crouched in the safety of frost-covered cane, Tsukishima let out a shuddering breath. It fogged in the air then disappeared. His knees ached from having walked for hours along the muddy slippery riverbank, and the scrape on his cheek stung as if bathed in salt water.
None of it compared to the rest of the picture that was his life, once so perfect and untouchable. From the wealth and the power to the vows of till-death-do-us-part.
Funny, how that turned out.
In the twilight sky, a hawk let out a haunting cry of a predator that echoed unanswered. Just like Tsukishima, it was all alone in the cold vast universe, with nowhere to go and nobody to return to.
Enough, he told himself ruthlessly. Self-pity has very little use in any situation. Rising slowly to his feet, wary of the aching muscles and the dangers still lurking everywhere, he surveyed the area just like he’d been taught to. Just because he’d been sitting on the throne right beside the king as his consort and trusted advisor, didn’t mean he'd ever stopped being a soldier. Neither of them had been stupid enough to believe in eternal peace.
But they had hoped.
And they had trusted.
Now Tsukishima was paying the price for that hope and that trust. Or maybe Kuroo was, lost at the bottom of the sea.
Foolish, how foolish we’ve been. How naive.
Just yesterday they’d been happy and in love, dancing to the tune of the lutes and the harps, holding a feast in honour of yet another prosperous, peaceful year. Kuroo had been grinning throughout the festivities, not quite drunk but not quite sober. His sneaky clever hand had been resting on Tsukishima’s thigh, far too high to be appropriate but hidden too well under the table for anyone to notice. Tsukishima paid back with filthy whispers when the rest of the party had been focused on evening’s entertainment, lips ghosting over the warmth of Kuroo’s neck. His shudder had been a delight. His eyes darkening a promise to take Tsukishima apart later, piece by piece, starting with that very same mouth.
Only, he never got a chance to. And the last words he’s ever said to Tsukishima were a bloody, desperate “I love you” that would haunt Tsukishima in this life and the next.
Which is how he found himself here, on the edge of the city that used to be his. Now taken away by a man who deserved no trust, and no mercy. But it wasn’t revenge Tsukishima was seeking. It wasn’t blood. It wasn’t even glory.
It was his husband’s lifeless body, locked in a golden coffin, washed away by the mighty currents of the river, while the kingdom they'd built together crumbled.
Because if there was one thing Tsukishima had learned from Kuroo over those precious, priceless years together, it was to never give up. Not even in death.
“What would you do, if you could live forever?” Kuroo had once asked him, in the still and quiet of the night, bathed in silks and moonlight, holding Tsukishima’s hand in his.
Tsukishima had snorted against the pillow. “There’s magic, Tetsurou, and then there’s silly wishes that no god will ever answer.”
Safe and content in their own little world, he didn’t have to think about the answer. “Spend the eternity with you.”
Kuroo’s smile had been worth admitting the truth, and Tsukishima’s answer remained the same. Even as he lay all alone now, under the black starless sky where not even the gods could see him and wondered what he would do if he didn’t get to see Kuroo ever again.
Tsukishima found his first sign of hope further up north, in a tiny village surrounded by endless fields of wheat and barley—in full growth now, ready to be harvested. There would be festivals soon, celebrating the crops and praying for a good winter, a better spring. Thanking the gods and the king for all they’ve been given.
Or there should be, had the land not been thrown into chaos.
News of king Kuroo’s death had travelled faster than Tsukishima, supported by malice and resources he did not have. But a kind couple overseeing the fig orchards had lent him new clothes and had not recognised his face. Or maybe they had but took pity on his hopelessness. Akaashi was definitely keen enough, and Bokuto pure. Tsukishima didn’t care either way.
In what felt like another lifetime, he and Kuroo had orchards just like this—neat fragrant rows of green that weren’t tall enough to provide any shadow, but still were Tsukishima’s favourite place to be, with gurgling water fountains and warm stone benches.
Kuroo used to drag him for walks there, back when Tsukishima had been merely the youngest son of a noble, annoyed more than flattered by the attention. Later, for kisses in the cover of leaves moist with dew. It had been hard to care about the wet marks they would leave on his clothes when Kuroo’s lips were on his skin. Sometimes, someone else would be walking the pebbled paths, and they would have to be quiet, and hushed laughter would burst out of them both later.
Their last walk had been just a few days before the end. Kuroo had escaped there after another draining meeting, weary of fighting greed and ambition. Tsukishima found him easily, and they’d watched the sun set over their land in total silence, curled together on a warm blanket of grass. Kuroo’s grip on Tsukishima’s hand had been an anchor that filled his heart with the kind of love that happened only once in a lifetime.
He felt that love still, swallowed by grief as it was. It was love that made him get up in the morning, join Bokuto in the fields during the day, help Akaashi watch the dozen of orphans in the evening. Love that made hope spark faintly in his chest at the hushed whisper of a rumour about a golden treasure from the gods themselves, unreachable to any mortal.
And it was love that lead him to the river late at night, to a hidden place away from the overgrown road, where fallen trees had formed a prickly cove, right before the river met the sea.
The water raged, and splashed, and howled, but the trees did not budge.
Amidst the branches, half sunk into the depths, lay a coffin of pure gold. Blood red rubies sparkling in the moonlight.
Tsukishima fell down to his knees and felt his heart beat again.
Every night after that, he came back. And every night, he came a step closer to touching the coffin. To seeing his husband's still, pale face. So dear even without the taunting smirks, the soft smiles, the crinkle of happy laughter in the corner of his eyes. So void of life, and Kuroo.
Tsukishima's arms bled from where the branches cut into his sunburned skin.
He had magic, of course, blessed by the gods. But it wasn't the kind Kuroo had—the kind that could destroy as much as it could create. The kind that was marvellous, and humbling, and so very fitting of a king.
His magic, on the other hand, was tied to the moon. Even now, in the bright midnight glow of it, Tsukishima felt his wounds seal up faster, his mind sharpen with perfect distinct clarity, his inhuman strength return to his body with each tree branch conquered. He was close, so close.
Not close enough.
His hand was almost touching the scatter of rubies on the gold-carved side of the coffin when a flash of light, blinding and vicious, nearly sent him tumbling down the slippery trunk, into the raging waters already soaking his feet, eager to swallow him whole. Desperately, he clung to the nearest tree, blinking at the fading light.
"Did you truly think it would be that easy?"
Across the river, calm and unperturbed, stood a monster. Too far away for Tsukishima to truly see the bored expression on his face, or the finery of his clothes, or the intricate crown atop his neatly combed hair. But he knew that face, knew the person who destroyed his everything.
It wasn't hard to imagine the rest.
Cold, merciless rage filled his heart. Pumped his blood with a ferocity unlike any he'd felt before.
The monster didn't care. "Not even a greeting? How quickly you lost your perfect manners." His voice must have been amplified with magic, Tsukishima thought detachedly, for it to penetrate the sound of the current. "Maybe you really are nothing without Kuroo."
A few years ago, he would have laughed. Agreed to some extent.
Now he knew better.
"Your jealousy has never been particularly pretty. You think his throne and his crown will make you like him, better than him, but we both know the truth, don't we?"
Maybe he was a fool, for taunting someone who held all the power while he clung to fragile wood like a lifeline. But he was who he was, and there was little he could lose.
"Jealousy? What an amusing thought. Almost as amusing as your foolish hope of getting him back. Let me make it easier for you."
With a swoosh of the monster's hand, the tightly sealed lid of the coffin slid open, and fell heavily into the water. With slowly sinking horror, Tsukishima watched as Kuroo's body—still dressed in that black silk tunic that had made Tsukishima look away in fear of blushing visibly, still bearing the kiss mark on his neck from when Tsukishima had failed to resist—rose above the golden prison that had kept it locked, still out of Tsukishima's reach.
Another flash of light, crackling like thunder. Hot like lightning.
And Kuroo's body ruptured into pieces.
"Good luck finding him now."
Then, the monster was gone.
It was closer to dawn when Akaashi found him sitting on the riverbank, drained and defeated. Even the water had seemed to calm down, rushing gently past the trees and the stones. Soothing. Endless. Relentless.
Tsukishima heard Akaashi sit down beside him, but didn't turn to look. He wasn't surprised either. "You've known from the beginning, haven't you."
Akaashi neither denied nor confirmed. "Nothing is lost yet, your majesty."
"Not to you, never to you. If you find him—if you find every single piece of him—all can still be regained. The land saved."
"And if I don't?"
"That's a question you have to ask yourself."
He had, and the answer had been terrifying. The ache unbearable. "Then help me. Please."
They left the village at dawn, silently and without goodbyes. The sun was but a fiery sphere rising slowly from the clutches of the underworld, ready to sail across the skies.
Still, Tsukishima shivered in his thin tunic. He had no idea what he was doing or where they were going or how—
The weight of Bokuto's hand on his shoulder was heavy and warm, steadying. "He'll show us the way."
Tsukishima believed that, desperately. The certainty that Kuroo was never going to leave him behind had never needed any proof.
That trust had always been mutual.
And so they went, from city to city, through villages big and small, hiding in the shadows or blending with the people. Some days, they got to sleep in lavish rooms, selling what few jewels Tsukishima had managed to grab before he'd fled the castle—baubles and trinkets that Kuroo liked to spoil him with. Tsukishima had no particular desire for them, but Kuroo's eyes always turned darker than midnight upon seeing him dressed in harsh gold and glittering stones and little else.
Other days, they had to camp outside city borders, in dark wet caves, on harsh cold ground, listening to the sounds of predators outside. Wondering if this—all of this—was as hopeless as it felt then. Even if none of them voiced it out loud.
Or maybe it was only Tsukishima.
They got used to it, all three of them. On colder nights, they slept together, trapping what little warmth they had between them under threadbare woolen blankets. Lulling themselves to sleep to the feel of each other's breath.
It was on a night like this that it finally happened.
Akaashi startled awake first, jerking upright. "He's here," he said softly. Tensely. Not exactly scared, or even unsure.
But Tsukishima had felt the presence too, and wasn't far behind. He sat up from the thin mattress, blinking into the darkness. Even with his magic, it took a while to make out the silhouette staring at them from the entrance of the cave.
A black cat. Still and regal, moonlight liquid on its silky fur. Startling golden eyes ancient and unblinking. Familiar in ways Tsukishima didn't think was possible. Heartbreaking and healing at the same time.
They continued their journey north much the same way: from town to town, village to village. With the only exception that now they had a guide and a clear destination.
The cat wasn't Kuroo of course. Merely a part of his soul, Akaashi had explained. There to help them find the rest. To bind Kuroo's body back together and let them try dragging him back from the vicious clutches of the beyond.
Or at least to let him find peace so he can be reborn into a new life, once again prosperous, though Tsukishima didn't like to think of that.
Not when the cat liked to curl up on his belly, soundless but impossibly warm. Too tranquil to ever be mistaken for anything mortal. Yet so reminiscent of those rare lazy mornings when Tsukishima would open his eyes to find Kuroo nuzzling into his chest, still deep asleep but refusing to let go even then. And Tsukishima wouldn't be able to stop himself from combing through the thick black hair, listening to the deep even inhales for a shamelessly long time.
Just like he did now, running his palms along sleek short fur. Letting the familiarity of the touch ground him.
I'll find you, he repeated like a mantra. I'll find you even in death. And I don't care what it will cost me.
The cat looked at him in bittersweet understanding.
They found the first piece a week later in a small oasis next to the City of the Dead.
It made the world explode in a colourful rush of memories, a torrent of fragments from a life Tsukishima refused to forget, or to ever let go.
Like a jackal on a hunt, he clung to it not with a single-minded vicious focus of a predator, but the hunger of a starved scavenger, willing to challenge and bite should anyone threaten to take even a piece of it.
Such as that first kiss under the scorching desert sun, with Kuroo's lips dry and chapped against his own. And the first fight right before the party of ambassadors was scheduled to arrive.
Moonlight strolls on a borrowed boat, far away from the ever-watchful palace guards, sneaking past whom had been half the fun.
Getting drunk on expensive imported wine. Watching Kuroo be silly and free, laughing like it was the best day of his life. Letting him pull Tsukishima along so effortlessly—into early morning spars in the courtyard, and quiet afternoons on the sprawling balcony, and daily games of senet, sometime solemn sometimes fun.
A half-painted picture of mundane things, always taken for granted. Cherished in the moment but laid to rest once the next one came long, and the next, and the next.
Life with Kuroo had always been full of tiny treasures, strung together to form an endless loop. Worth more than any gold, including the crown.
"Have you thought," Akaashi had asked him one evening, "about what you would do after?"
They were sitting on the edge of a moonlit pool, feet barely dipping into its cool waters. Tsukishima watched it ripple, silent for a moment. They had retrieved another piece, and another. Yet the concept of after—of an ending—still seemed so far away, even on that balmy night all the way across the sea.
He didn't know whether there was such a thing as an ending. Didn't know which possibility scared him more either.
With a noncommittal shrug that Akaashi no doubt understood, Tsukishima stepped into the pool and thought about all the things Kuroo was, and all the things he himself was not. And maybe he'd imagined it, but he heard the silent echo loud and clear:
You could do anything you wanted, Kei.
Weeks went by. Months. A full year. Bokuto's hands slowly lost their callouses. Akaashi's hair grew up to his shoulders and Tsukishima took it upon himself to cut it. His own body had filled out from miles and miles of ruthless travel.
It was from land to land now, each piece of Kuroo lost in forgotten corners of the universe, buried under mounds of sand in an open field, tucked between two manuscripts in the biggest library to ever exist.
Until Tsukishima held every single one of them in his trembling hands.
He had no healing magic, no spell to summon the dead. He wasn't Kuroo, he couldn't make anything possible.
But as his silent tears fell onto all what was left, mourning all that was lost, something mended.
Burst back to life.
Vibrant and impossible.
A shimmer of light. A burst of life. An amalgam of memories. All shifting, twisting, melding together.
And when Tsukishima opened his eyes again, he saw Kuroo standing in the middle of the rundown room, right where the cat used to be.
The dirty floor, the chipped stone walls, even the other two people—it all disappeared.
As if there was only Kuroo and him, him and Kuroo. Together again.
Just like it used to be.
Just like it should be.
"My love," Kuroo said at last, silhouette shimmering with that same otherworldly light. He kneeled down next to Tsukishima, a mere gasped breath apart.
Tsukishima simply stared, unsure of what was real anymore. In the periphery of his mind, he heard Akaashi close the door. It barely registered.
"You're here," he croaked eventually. Still too afraid to touch. To shatter the illusion that was slowly mending his tattered heart.
Kuroo smiled, soft and bittersweet and proud. "Because you found me."
And his voice—his voice was every dream Tsukishima had for the past month, year, eternity. He lunged for Kuroo, tackling them both to the ground, a cloud of dust flying in their wake. He didn't care about any of that. Only the smell, the feel, the touch of Kuroo, pressed against every fibre of his body, his very soul.
"I missed you," Kuroo mouthed into his hair, pressing their bodies so tight together their hearts might as well have become one. "I missed you so much."
It was an effort to pull away from everything he ever wanted.
"But you can't stay." It wasn't a question, and so Kuroo didn't provide an answer. He cradled Tsukishima's face in his hands, peppered it with fleeting tender kisses that were both love and desperate at once.
And Tsukishima knew Kuroo didn't belong in this world anymore—knew it as well as his favourite riddle, with all the logic he possessed. Yet his hands didn't care; they clenched the black silk of Kuroo's tunic in a deathly grip, like they could chain Kuroo to this world again. To Tsukishima.
"Kei," Kuroo whispered. "Kei."
Tsukishima shook his head, eyes prickling. It was getting hard to breath.
Gently, Kuroo pried his fingers off the fabric. Gentler still, he pressed them to his lips. "You have to let go. You have to go back, to the kingdom that waits for its king."
Somewhere deep inside, Tsukishima knew that. Had always known that. It didn't make it any easier to accept. "How long?"
Kuroo pressed another kiss, right on the ruby of his wedding ring. It made Tsukishima want to scream. "We have tonight."
One night. One single night.
It wasn't enough—it could never be enough. But Tsukishima would take this gift from whatever gods had not yet abandoned him.
And think about the after later, when he was alone once more.
The mist that rose from the river was as thick and as cold as it had been on the day Tsukishima bid his first goodbye to the golden city sprawling along both riverbanks. Now bathed in blissful drunken happiness as the celebrations had finally come to a sleepy end and even the bells had stopped toiling for the newly crowned king and his consort.
But Tsukishima wasn't there to witness it—he'd bid his farewell when he placed the jewelled crown, once his and Kuroo's, on Bokuto's bowed head, to the cheers and the elated tears of so many. It had been a hard few months, for all of them. Full of bloodshed and vengeance. But they made it, and as Tsukishima snuck out of the castle silently, leaving the rest to bask in their victory, he looked back only once. To see Akaashi give him a tiny nod. A thank you and a blessing.
And now he stood on the precipice of two worlds, between the dead and the living. Smiling at the love of his life. Aching to touch.
They hadn't seen each other in almost a year. Yet so little had changed. Except maybe for the ebony crown of stars on Kuroo's head.
"Ruler of the underworld? Really?"
Kuroo smiled, more vibrant and real than ever before. Offering his warm, steady hand. "You ready to rule with me?"
Tsukishima grasped it without hesitation. Took his first step into the beyond. And felt shamelessly alive.